Finding Happiness at Work
January 16, 2013
— Happiness, Happiness at work, Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Laurie Colwin, Philosophy, Simpsons, Yellow Pages
In her book The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht identifies three basic kinds of happiness: good day, good life, and peak, and I’ve found that thinking about work within her construct has helped me tease apart some of the “happiness formula” variables that influence well-being.
Good-day happiness at work might mean: I got to the office early, I was able to take care of backlogged paperwork that had been nagging me, I had a productive meeting, and I was able to leave in time to make it to my daughter’s school concert. Good-day happiness is about an awareness of the fortunate conditions of one’s life–where stopping to smell the roses can have measurable positive impact.
Good-life happiness as it relates to work would be more along the lines of being engaged in tasks that you find meaningful and challenging, and in which you are aware that you’re helping provide a decent material quality of life for your family. This kind of happiness is more connected to hard work–the sense that one is doing the best one can in any endeavor and, ideally, endeavors in which the work itself is its own reward. Good-life happiness does not relate to things like our gender or our age, over which we have no influence, but rather to conditions over which we do have some control, such as where we work or the kind of work we choose to do. But good-life happiness does not mean that we are “happy all the time,” to quote the (only somewhat ironic) title of Laurie Colwin’s great novel. Far from it. The positive psychology field puts this in perspective, acknowledging through empirical and replicable research that in spite of the advantages of thinking positively, there are times when “negative” thinking is appropriate, and that difficulty, pain, and sadness are inevitable. We need obstacles and challenges in our lives for achievements to have meaning, the cold and cloudy days that make us revel in the warm and sunny ones, the necessary and numbing scut work that lets us really enjoy the resulting moments of success. Outrage on behalf of the disadvantaged can lead people to make their corners of the world better places. Ferocity–a little anger, even–can fuel healthy competition.
And, finally, the third kind of happiness–peak happiness–is the more transcendent sort, by definition rare in everyday life, including (and maybe especially) on the job. I’ve also found that this sort of happiness becomes more elusive the older we get–the more cares and responsibilities we have, the less willing we may be to engage in the kinds of experiences where peak moments tend to happen. It takes effort to wake up in the middle of the night with our kids to watch the Pleiades’ meteor showers if our prospective sense of how exhausted we’ll be at work the next day outweighs our anticipation of awe. But, Hecht intimates, it is the peak experiences in our lives that endure, that offer us hope and glimmers of meaning, and that connect us to our families, communities, and a sense of the eternal. And this kind of happiness is closely connected to the “V” in the happiness formula–these are the things we choose to do.
While in our personal and private lives peak happiness may be, for instance, the kind of euphoria we experience at a great rock concert or after exceptional sex, at work it is more often connected with the creation of something original: designing a new kind of ergonomic desk chair, discovering a new way to isolate and destroy viruses, delivering a giant project early and under budget, or creating the next Simpsons. In short, moments of peak happiness at work often involve some aspect of the creative process.
The Creative Connection
“There have been in my career a handful of times when I had what I call true happiness–where who I was at that time felt in harmony with what my company did and was about,” says Tom Harbeck, who is today senior vice president for strategy and marketing at OTX, a consumer research firm. And Tom connects his professional happiness during those times with a few key factors: working for a company where there was “a team of people who ‘got it,’” where everyone felt plugged into some larger vision and shared the goal of making the mission come to life. Tom is talking about the collective experience of flow, the happiness derived from face-to-face, day-to-day social connection with other seriously engaged people on the same wavelength.
One of Tom’s times of peak joy was when he worked at the Chiat-Day advertising agency in the 1980s. “The culture was so intensely alive,” he says, “that you couldn’t separate the [agency’s] slogans from the employees who wore them on their T-shirts. ‘Good enough is not enough,’ ‘I’d rather be the pirates than the navy,’ ‘How big can we get before we get bad?’ It was a culture that thrived on scrutiny, debate, evaluation, and criticism–all aimed at the work, not at each other.”
Tom was fortunate to find work that tapped into his inner passions. “I was a poetry major,” he says, “who had no training in advertising or marketing, in the midst of an organization creating an advertising revolution.” Chiat-Day’s 1984 Apple ad redefined buzz and event advertising after only one run. Nike’s “real athletes” billboards took a 180-degree turn from celebrity sports spokespeople. And the firm’s NYNEX Yellow Pages ad, “If it’s out there, it’s in here,” charmed the entire country. Despite Tom’s inexperience, his bosses listened to what he had to say and considered it (not him) against the goal of improving the agency’s work, making it closer to great. It turned out that his English-major poetry training–finding and feeling the meaning given an economy of words used freshly–was highly relevant to creating ads. Advertising was intended to make you think and feel something, not unlike poetry. “So despite no prior experience,” Tom says, “who I was and what I knew and what I was good at, at that precise moment in my life, was valued. I was happy. When it happens, it is tremendous–you cannot believe they actually pay you to show up at your desk; you are giddy.”